Is the Tide Changing?

September 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

Photo by Robert Peinert © All rights reserved.

Guest post by Robert Peinert

Over the last several years, as I continue to do research for various projects, I’ve read about a growing number of Medical Photography Departments that are shutting their doors or changing their focus. Private hospitals, public community-based hospitals, and even several university-based hospitals have closed their photography and media departments in recent years. Costs and hospital/departmental needs are among the top reasons, however a more reoccurring reason is the growth of technology.

Technology, especially in medicine, has come a long way over the last decade. Computers, PDAs, smart phones, and even tablets are playing more prominent roles in healthcare; the majority of hospital systems now use some form of electronic medical records, machines are automatically dispensing orders and medicine, and robots are performing surgery (under the surgeons control, of course).

The role of a medical photographer has also been greatly affected by this improvement in technology. Still and video cameras have greatly improved and simplified; it no longer takes a “rocket-scientist” to work a (now, digital) camera, in fact most point and shoots have improved to the point that the camera itself can tell the user when they have a good picture – including exposure and composition.

Many hospitals now have nurses (or other medical staff) using these point and shoot cameras to take the photographs of patients, wounds, surgeries, and other needed medical images. While they may not provide proper exposure, good composition, and even proper focus, it seems more and more hospitals are going this route rather than have a dedicated Medical Photography Department.

This shift is forcing Medical Photography Departments to close or offer other services.

Photo by Robert Peinert © All rights reserved.

While working on my graduate degree, I served as a research assistant for our Surgery Department primarily photographing and filming various surgeries for instruction and instrument development. Towards the end of my two-year program, a “Medical Photographer II” position opened up within the university’s Medical Photography Department. Excited to continue working as a medical photographer, I applied and was granted an interview. During the interview I discussed the duties I was performing with the Surgery Department and how I felt it would help transition into the role. However, much to my surprise, the director – who was the one interviewing me – told me that “They really don’t offer ‘medical photography’ anymore and haven’t for about ten years, that service just isn’t asked for anymore.” He went on to tell me they primarily shoot public-relation and advertisement related photographs.

This was just my first taste of how technology is impacting medical photography.

Currently I am working as a freelance photographer; because of my father, an orthopedic surgeon, and his partners and friends, I have been able to continue doing medical photography as part of my freelance business.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a physician to come photograph a surgery his partner was doing. They wanted to use the images in several presentations for a residency program. I told him I was happy to and we agreed on a specifics. I showed up on the day of the surgery, talked to both surgeons to determine if there was anything they wanted highlighted – as I normally do – then went to change. The physician that hired me was not scrubbing in, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to have him “direct me” to specifics shots they wanted for the presentation.

As I was shooting the case I looked over and noticed the physician, the one who hired me, was taking pictures with his iPhone. I asked if there was something specific he wanted me to grab, he said “No, these are just for reference.” I continued photographing the case, getting shots from all angles and covering everything I thought was relevant. Since he was on a time crunch due to the presentation, I rushed to get the images edited and delivered to the physician later that afternoon. He showed me his presentation and all the photos throughout where the ones he shot with his iPhone; some turned out nice, but most were poorly exposed and the composition was awkward.

Even though he paid me to get images for his presentation, he opted to use his iPhone pictures. He told me I would still be given credit and I told him I’d rather not. Having the images for my portfolio and payment was enough for me.

This showed me that clearly people are opting for ease of technology rather than quality. I have heard of several other instances where surgeons will have a nurse grab a point-and-shoot camera and simply take a picture of something during a surgery rather than have a dedicated photographer present. And because of this, many Medical Photography Departments are closing because the need has decreased and technology has improved; hospitals don’t see the need to staff a person (or persons) when someone already in the hospital can take point-and-shoot cameras and get “good enough” results.

Photo by Robert Peinert © All rights reserved.

With point-and-Shoot cameras seeming to “replace” the need for a photographer, how can medical photographers and Medical Photography Departments continue to survive? Adjusting services offered is definitely becoming one of the more popular shifts; another option I see is to advertise the departments’ services more.

When I was working as a medical photographer for the Surgery Department, many other departments suggested a need for what I was doing – filming and photographing surgeries – within their department. When I mentioned there was already a Medical Photography Department within the university, many were unaware. When I interviewed with the university’s Medical Photography Department, the director mentioned no one has requested their service for surgical documentation, or wound documentation, or other patient documentation; yet when many physicians saw me performing this documentation, they expressed a desire. It seems to me, one of the reasons point-and-shoot cameras are becoming a more popular option is because so few realize their hospital even has a Medical Photography Department.

There are clear ways to save our Medical Photography Departments, but it comes down to those individuals willing to put in the effort to expand their services and make the time to establish their presence throughout the entire hospital system and beyond.

Robert Peinert is a medical photographer based in South Texas. He has been practicing photography for nearly 10 years, with the last three focused on medical and commercial. Check out Rob’s blog.

Note: The photos in this post are not from the described case.

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§ One Response to Is the Tide Changing?

  • harlan pine says:

    It’s happening all over. The problem is HIPPA requirements that are not followed by the docs shooting from their “hip pocket”.

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